— Alice Munro, Forgiveness in Families
People never quite disappear, do they? And what a magical way to stay, cozy as old flannel, the familiar, absentminded whistle, now from the lips of your 7-yr-old namesake, contentedly immersed in a rainy-day project.
I can’t stop thinking about this guy’s face. If you’re local, you’ve probably seen him at that busy intersection of Ponce and Highland near the Majestic. He’s not young but not old, milk-coffee-complexioned, professorial in glasses and an old-fashioned navy cloth windbreaker. He uses his long legs to propel his wheelchair backwards, tippy-toeing hard into the ground while looking back over his shoulder, sometimes down the sidewalk, sometimes nerve-rackingly across the street. It looks exhausting, but from the set of his mouth and furrow of his brow you can tell he’s determined to make it happen. I always wonder about him, about his disability, where he lives and if anyone helps.
Today I was stopped at the light, idly staring at the blind woman from the checkout line at Publix, still in her uniform and waiting to use the crosswalk. I chat with her sometimes when she’s bagging my groceries, but the truth is I avoid her if I see her before choosing a lane, because she takes forever to do the job, reaching out and patting the receiving area off the conveyer belt, assessing items, searching for bags and so on. I never know how much to help, if I should say, “You missed some fruit over there to your right — no, down a little!” or “Watch your hand, here comes a big bag of dog food!” or if maybe that’s insulting and I should just leave her be. But I worry she’ll smush the bread or spill the cleaners, and I imagine us as a bad SNL skit, the inept bagger and the horrified housewife (I’m usually Aykroyd in drag). I want to laugh and then feel terrible and silently vow to purposely seek out her lane next time, my intention already fading as I remind myself I’m really in a hurry, even as my heart recognizes I’d just rather not deal.
She was standing on the corner with her cane, waiting for the light to change, and her normally pulled-back brown hair was loose and flapping over her face in the wind, wavy where she’d taken out the ponytail holder then trailing off into long split ends. I noticed her skin for the first time, pale with angry red tulips creeping up the sides of her cheeks. She probably lived in that high-rise across the street, an old brick building with depressing florescent hallways and dented metal doors that secreted the melancholy cheer of daytime tv and the boiled turnip smell of the perpetually homebound.
I’d been there before, long ago, delivering boxed meals to AIDs patients during a lost post-college year, between jobs and before children, nights disappearing in swirls of smoke and bourbon, days stretched long with consuming self-doubt and aimless future angst. AIDs was still pretty much a death sentence then, and I’d wanted to help somehow, imagining grateful Hepburn eyes protruding from sharp-boned faces, maybe the clasping of one veiny roped hand over mine, a stoic nod confirming I’d done all I could. Instead, I stumbled into pill-cluttered tabletops and added more boxes to styrofoam-filled refrigerators, tripped over gnarled webs of extension cords and weaved around wheeled tanks, smiling and discreetly holding my breath, the stench of leaking urine and lurking death bleakly terrifying. The appreciative charges of my imagination turned out to be indifferent or sometimes openly hostile to my breezy comings and goings. There were grouchy directives from dank couches; resentful, hollowed-out stares in response to my phonily cheerful greetings; mocking half-smiles, gazes trained on TVs, as I brightly asked if they needed anything else. What they needed was everything else. They refused to indulge my little charade because they already knew my sad secret: I wanted to get the hell away from them as fast as my limbs could run.
I snapped back into focus as the man’s chair scuttled into my peripheral vision, tail-end first and weirdly crablike. He did a kind of parallel park move next to the blind Publix lady, and sat for a second, breathing heavily, glancing around and recomposing himself. Sensing another presence, he tilted his chin up and to the right, taking her in. And in that moment his entire face seemed to collapse at once and then soften, emotions shadowing across it with the intensity of a Broadway star playing to the back row. From across the street, I swear I witnessed the record of his life, the story of hers. I saw pity and love, sorrow and recognition, and such a deep-bone tiredness it felt as if his whole body sighed. I knew there was no “not dealing” for them, no running away, no running anywhere, ever. His face hardened again before he turned back to the flashing crosswalk sign, staring vacantly until the light changed. And I drove away, lying to myself I’d do better, as they tapped and toed into the intersection, out of my rearview mirror.
Consider this exchange w/my husband earlier this morning:
Rick: “C. Everett Koop passed.”
C. Everett Koop, 96, former U.S. surgeon general, who infuriated conservatives and freaked out a whole lot of other people w/his public call for condom usage in AIDs prevention; unapologetic promotion of sex education for elementary school-age children; and loud condemnation of the lethal cigarette industry dies and I go “Hmmm”, and turn my attention back to breakfast.
Assuming I’m not just hideously insensitive and plenty of other people reacted similarly, the message is simple: Seriously. Stop worrying so much about what other people think (I am terrible about this, by the way), because you die and everyone who doesn’t know you that well just shrugs and furrows their brow for a second then moves on. C. Everett Koop was a conservative pro-lifer who followed his conscience even when it strayed from party dicta. So whatever right means for you, do that for right’s sake. Nobody’s going to stop eating bagels because you made a choice they didn’t like, but they just might pause, cream cheese knife held aloft, nodding quietly over that one cool thing you did to make your life, or their lives, or the world a little better. And what’s so bad about that?